HILO —Hawaii County Council members indicated Monday they’re not ready to gamble on high-stakes bingo as a way to raise revenues in a tight budget year.
Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille posed the possibility of trying to get the state to allow Hawaii Island to investigate bingo as a money-making option, saying the county spends a lot of time on the expenditure side of the budget, but not as much on the revenue side.
Wille said high-stakes bingo is different from casino gambling because it’s not a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week enterprise. The pots are much lower, Wille said, and the game takes place at a multipurpose center that is also used as a place to socialize.
“What is the least bad alternative to deal with the really important financial needs that we have right now,” Wille said. “The reality is, we are in dire financial straits.”
Property taxes are by far the county’s primary revenue source, and it’s usually there the council looks when the county’s budget won’t balance. Because of an estimated 1 percent increase in property values, property tax revenues are expected to increase 1.2 percent, or $2.4 million, to $200.6 million.
The County Council is working this week on the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Mayor Billy Kenoi has proposed a $370.8 million no-new-taxes budget that ends monthly employee furloughs while holding the line on departmental spending. The budget is $5.7 million, or 1.5 percent, higher than the current year’s spending plan that expires June 30. The bulk of the increase, $4.2 million, is for employee salaries for the extra 12 days due to the end of furloughs.
Cory Harden, one of the few members of the public testifying at a hearing of the Committee on Governmental Relations and Economic Development, urged the council not to pursue gambling. She cited statistics showing that making gambling accessible increases problem gambling, which in turn increases foreclosures, suicides and other societal ills.
“The costs would probably be a lot higher than the payoffs,” Harden said.
The council members who commented during a discussion about the prospects of high-stakes bingo were generally opposed.
South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford said she’d researched the topic and found the costs to society and government are high.
“For every $1 in revenues, you spend $3 on social issues caused by the gambling,” Ford said. “I would oppose all gambling in the state of Hawaii … county of Hawaii.”
Wille countered that bingo is different from casino gambling and doesn’t carry the same stigma.
“High-stakes bingo is not the sames as casino gambling,” Wille said. “Social ills and often organized crime that go with casino gambling are not there.”
That wasn’t enough to convince Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter.
“Gambling is gambling. If you have a gambling addiction, you have a gambling addiction,” Poindexter said. “It doesn’t matter what type gambling you have.”